Nantucket celebrates its 350th -November/December 2009

Tristram Coffin purchased the island 350 years ago

by: Sharon Lorenzo

photography by: Jim Powers

Three hundred and fifty years ago, Tristram Coffin and his mighty band of family and fellow proprietors entered into an agreement to purchase control of the island from its native Wampanoag chieftains and Thomas Mayhew for 30 pounds and two beaver hats, one for Mayhew and another for his wife. Mayhew, a merchant and Christian missionary, had been granted title to the island in 1641 by the English authorities. There have been many unanswered queries as to why Coffin would have left what many historians believe to be his family homestead in Devonshire County, England at the age of 37 with his wife, five children, a widowed mother and two unmarried sisters in tow to hazard the founding of a new life in America.

Island historian and author Nat Philbrick thinks it was likely that the bloody civil war in England as well as heavy tithing to support the armies of the crown, forced many landed gentry to decide that the risks in the new world of the Americas seemed more open to opportunity than service to the English crown.

Tristram Coffin was indeed an ambitious chap and after moving from Salisbury to Haverhill and then Newbury in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he ran an inn and a ferry service across the Merrimack River. His wife Dionis, her name associated with the Greek god Dionysus, helped to make the tavern’s beer, which apparently was too rich for the Puritans of the town, who fined her for allegedly charging too much. But the charges were dismissed after the Coffins proved they were using six bushels of malt instead of four, thereby making a higher-quality product.

Like his entrepreneurial father, Tristram’s son Peter ventured to Dover, New Hampshire and started a thriving sawmill which provided wood for the colonial homes of the day.

To avoid the meddlesome Puritan commercial regulations, Coffin investigated the possibilities of forming a syndicate to purchase control of the island of Nantucket, which he in fact accomplished with a group of nine other families in 1659. With Peter’s wood, more than 100 structures were built around the initial settlement on Capaum Harbor with Tristram’s own homestead at the head of the pond, each lot measuring 60 rods, or about 21 acres. Coffin was wise to employ many of the 3,000 natives on the island to work on his farms, and he built wigwams for them as well as a grist mill to grind the native corn. In 1677 Tristram was appointed chief magistrate of the settlement by Lieutenant Governor Edmund Andros, Esq. His first act was to make the sale of alcohol to the native Wampanoags a punishable offense to avoid conflict and abuse by the settlers. By his death in 1681, Tristram had seven children, 60 grandchildren and 1,582 descendants throughout the New England colonies.

There is a small marble marker on Capaum Road today identifying the location of Tristram Coffin’s original homestead. Island artist Greg Hill has done a commissioned painting showing the original Capaum Harbor as it might have looked in the 17th century. Sheep grazing around the pond with farms for cattle and horses as well would have been the order of the day. Local collectors like Ken Hammond have found many Native American artifacts near Capaum Pond, showing that the Wampanoags hunted and fished in the region for some 3,000 years before 1659 after the creation of the island following the glacial ice age.

A painting in the Nantucket Historical Association by Thomas Birch is entitled “Old Sherburne from 1810,” and the scene depicts windmills and vessels sailing in and out of a deep harbor. Most historians concur that this is indeed today’s Nantucket Harbor, as storms repeatedly silted in the entrance to Capaum Harbor and required a massive relocation to a deeper spot after 1715. The name of the settlement was changed in 1795 to Nantucket following the conveyance in 1692 to the Massachusetts Bay Colony of title to the island by an act of the English Parliament.

By this time a church had been built in 1711 overlooking Maxcy’s Pond where a marker was dedicated in 1881 at a Coffin reunion to the remains of the 10 proprietors buried on the hillside. Island historian Frances Karttunen and several other Nantucketers have spearheaded a drive to erect a new marker, one that also includes the names of the proprietors’ spouses, who raised 80 children in those early days.

Seismic radiography will be used to locate the perimeter of the old church which has also been moved to the location behind the Congregational Church on Centre Street as its vestry today. The Proprietors Cemetery was recently cleared and, with the help of the Nantucket Anglers’ Club, a park has been created for fishing and picnicking on the site.

Siblings Whitey Willauer and Sally Nash tell a curious story about life near the old settlement. There were three large homes built near the pond in the 1930s. There was a race to see which would be finished first to claim the right to be named “Dionis,” in honor of Tristram Coffin’s wife. This title fell to the Harris family, whose daughter Emily married the nearby golf-course keeper Oswald Tupancy. Gilbert Verney remodeled the Harris home and raised his family there until his death in 1978, when two of his sons, Richard and Geoff, took over the family paper business near Mount Monadnock, reminiscent of Peter Coffin’s early business in New Hampshire.

The east side of Capaum Pond is now occupied by Louis and Margie Susman of Chicago. Lou is the newly-appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James, representing the United States in the U.K. for President Barack Obama, who visited his residence in the summer of 2007. The ties between Nantucket and the U.K. continue in many ways, 350 years after Coffin and his proprietors braved the fierce Atlantic crossing to come to our fair shores. The early settlement thrived in its multicultural symbiosis of the English working together with Native Americans in a healthy exchange of goods and services, which made this island the thriving success that it continues to be today.

Sharon Lorenzo is a Nantucket summer resident and on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she teaches art law and cultural property seminars.

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